On power and individuals: why I speak (and write)

This is the final post in a series. The first post was on difference, the second, offensiveness, and the third, seeking permission; there was also an interlude.

When I started doing the journaling that led to this series of posts, I never imagined I’d have enough material for four entries. I actually started this post immediately after completing the first, but it’s been sitting with me for the three weeks since then, informing and being informed by the subsequent posts and their comments. It has been the hardest post to write. Not only did I go through more drafts than usual, but I had extensive notes on the drafts, and then equally extensive notes on the notes. This is good; it means that this is important to me, and I need practice in articulating it. My writing is always the outcome of an evolution, but that’s especially true here.

What I’m writing about today has taken me years to fully appreciate. I’ve spent a long time thinking about the differences between people and how to bridge them: how to talk and act, how to reach out to others. I’ve approached it largely as a question for individuals, not because I think we don’t need structural support, but because that isn’t my particular expertise. My fundamental premise was that change needs to start from the individual; in some sense, it can only start from the individual. I still believe that. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t write what I do.


But lately I’ve been thinking about the limitations of the individual, especially in the face of structures and systems: laws, governments, the media and those who claim to speak for public opinion, longstanding imbalances of power, culture and tradition — and the effect of all of this on the way we think, speak, and act (both consciously and unconsciously). What I’m trying to point out, essentially, is that while we operate as individuals, we don’t do so in a vacuum. We are greatly, perhaps inextricably, influenced by others, not only directly (“my mother told me girls can’t be scientists”), but via attitudes and hierarchies so pervasive that we forget to question their legitimacy (token female characters on TV shows; absence of women in leadership positions; social norms for gendered behavior).

It can be difficult to talk about these influences. Talk about them too emphatically and you run the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, or at least like a person whose shoulder bears a serious chip. Talk about them too loosely and your thoughts come across as mere impressions, as dismissible as cobwebs. But these influences matter. Where does society end and the individual begin? How do we separate our own thoughts from the patterns bestowed upon us from birth — and even before birth, since our parents and teachers and other influences were likewise shaped by those who came before them? We are not born independent thinkers. We generate our thoughts amid the legacies of past thought.

When we don’t discuss these legacies — when we let them go unchallenged — they become stronger. From mere inheritances, they become active forces, giving momentum to our present day. The illness that is only spoken of in hushed voices. A lifestyle sacrificed to achieve, because that’s what success is. The part of town that is always avoided. A look desperately desired, because that’s what beauty is. The opportunities not sought because “we are not that kind of people.” These things look baldly obvious in text, but in daily life, so many such assumptions fall unquestioned into the realm of “that’s just the way things are.” I am, in fact, (most of the time) not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t believe that people behind the scenes got together and decided to brainwash us. We all have blind spots, and many of them are shared so widely that we give them the dignity of truth. And the more we take them as truth, the more they come to have the power of truth. The momentum of the status quo is always toward reinforcing itself.

I’m going to specifically discuss racism for a moment, though you can apply my thoughts to all forms of power disparity (sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and so forth). It’s a sensitive subject, and that’s partly why many of us have trouble separating individual racism (the harm perpetrated by individual persons) from the imbalances that are entrenched in our society. Recognizing racism as a pervasive social force means you recognize that “I’m not racist” does nothing to negate the fact that racism exists, and indeed only tries to cover up responsibility. Of course there is a difference between being racist as an individual — because of choices you make deliberately — and being racist because you can’t help but exist in a system that is racist. However, because ours is a society of racist systems and racist power structures, no matter how much we deplore racism as individuals, we are complicit. We have been taught it, sometimes unintentionally, by people who have themselves grown up on this same racism. We have been taught that it is tolerable. And we have, unless we are members of the most marginalized groups, benefited from racism. Yes, benefited. If you are white, or if you are light-skinned like I am, you have benefited by having your presence unquestioned and untargeted by police, by store security, by local vigilantes, because they are too busy chasing people who don’t look like you. If you are nonwhite and dark-skinned, but your appearance marks you as a member of the middle class or highly educated or friendly or bearing other “acceptable” (nonthreatening) traits, you have benefited by being set apart as “not like those people.” It may not look like a big deal, but it’s racism nonetheless. Racism is a spectrum from the very subtle to the horrific, and it exists in every part of society. As long as you exist in society, you participate in racism. As nonracist individuals, this is hard to swallow. It’s hard to accept that racism continues to exist in spite of the nonracist beliefs of ourselves and others we know. But until we accept this, we can’t truly know what we fight against.

Colorblindness, although it’s a nice idea, only fights the racism of individuals, and not the systemic, structural racism that affects our world in every sphere. There is racism in hiring and in housing, in media depictions and in whose creative work gets the broadest distribution, in the distribution of resources and, of course, in the dramatic historical oppressions that still have ramifications today. How could we possibly succeed in true colorblindness, when even our unconscious has been trained to see color and respond to it in certain ways? How can colorblindness make sense in a world where whiteness is presented as the default, and other colors as marginal — even to members of the marginal groups? If I watch a movie in which all major characters and most of the extras are white, that isn’t considered a white movie, that’s just “a movie.” But if I watch a movie in which most of the cast is Asian, that’s not “a movie,” that’s an Asian movie; if the cast is Black, it’s “urban” (I hate that euphemism). How does that make sense? What’s harmful here isn’t just the marginalization, it’s the way the marginalization is normalized, so that even those of us who are directly affected have been taught not to see it as a problem. That is how the status quo maintains itself.

Every day there are people fighting for change, doing important work, but they do it against the tide of power the status quo has on its side. The other day I read this article and this line just shut me down for a moment: “Women of color between the ages of 36 and 49 have, on average, $5 in assets compared with white women’s $42,600.” Think about that for a moment, if you can (my brain still dies a little each time I try). I remember reading, I think in Women Don’t Ask, that a similar imbalance exists between men versus women, but it’s far, far less dramatic than these numbers. The damage of racism isn’t just something that happens in discrete incidents; it accrues. Think of the length of a life, the number of hours and days and months spent in hard work and physical labor and mental anguish — for all of us, no matter how comfortable — and then just think about what those numbers imply. The disparity goes beyond the individual. When we confuse individual privilege with structural privilege (“I’m a white guy but I have struggles!”), or think that our nonracist actions operate independently of our racist world, we do nothing to address this disparity. And, as I keep saying, when we do nothing, we strengthen the system, so actually we’re not doing nothing — we’re supporting the existing power structures.

And that is my point, with this entire series. I used to think that it was enough not to be racist (and again, sexist, classist, etc) in my own life. I hadn’t thought about this entire system I was inheriting and, by the fact of my presence, contributing to. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not believe that power is decided by under-the-table deals in closed rooms (well, I don’t believe that all power is decided that way). I believe that society is made, that culture is made, by millions of individuals who have all decided — even if they don’t know they’ve decided — to take a stand either to change the status quo, or to let it be. So this is what I’m telling you now: if you never do anything to change the dominant narrative, then you have decided to let it continue as it is. I’m not talking about marching in the streets; your stand can be as simple and as tentative as slipping into a conversation, “I’m not sure why, but the way we’re talking about this is making me uncomfortable.” I’m talking about (selectively, strategically) not letting certain statements slide when you talk with family and friends, I’m talking about paying money to creators whose work helps to disrupt the dominant narrative (like writers of color, or queer filmmakers, or artists who come from poverty), I’m talking about writing to congresspeople or signing petitions or voting, I’m talking about just speaking for change, wherever you think there is a need for it, in whatever way works for you. We start our thinking as individuals, but this is about so much more than our individual selves — it’s about building a better society, about working to change incrementally what no one person can dismantle alone.